Russia | Nationalism is a double-edged sword for Ukraine and Poland

Nationalism is a double-edged sword for Ukraine and Poland

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 25, 2015 1:41 PM (UTC+8)
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The upset victory of the Polish opposition candidate Andrzej Duda in the presidential runoff on Sunday is to be primarily attributed to the voters’ disaffection over the state of the Polish economy. Despite the unprecedented prosperity that Poland has witnessed in the recent years, the benefits have not percolated down evenly. Unemployment at 11 percent and insufficient social benefits have been key issues in the election.

But Duda’s election victory has implications for European politics. (The Polish constitution gives a role for the president in foreign affairs.) For one thing, Duda is a Eurosceptic. More importantly, Poland is a big player in the Ukraine crisis.

Perhaps, only Lithuania and Canada have been as openly vituperative toward Russia over its alleged intervention in Ukraine as Poland has been. Poland has been demanding a tough line by the European Union and NATO toward Russia. Poland recently offered to host the US’ ABM system. Duda himself is on record as having called for permanent NATO deployment in Poland.

Nonetheless, President Vladimir Putin lost no time to dispatch a congratulatory message to Duda without waiting for the formal announcement of the result of Sunday’s runoff, stressing “mutual respect for each other’s interests” and the importance of Russian-Polish ties “to strengthen security and stability in Europe”.

Putin all but expressed the hope for a new approach to Poland’s ties with Russia. At other levels, too, Moscow has signaled the expectation that Russian-Polish relations may improve in the period ahead.

For Russia, Poland’s stance on the Ukraine crisis is of great importance. If Poland moderates its stance on Ukraine, Moscow’s efforts to woo the European Union will become that much easier.

Poland is also a major ally of the US in NATO. Any moderation in the Polish stance on Ukraine will complement the easing of the Russian-American tensions, which, as the influential Moscow politician Alexey Pushkov put it, is shifting from a phase of “active confrontation” to “moderate confrontation” following the recent meeting of Putin with the visiting US secretary of state John Kerry in Sochi.

What remains unspoken here is the potential impact of Duda’s victory on the calculus of the Polish-Ukrainian relationship. So far, Poland has been a solid pillar of support for the regime in Kiev in showing the middle finger at Moscow. But Duda heads a right-wing nationalist party and militant Ukrainian nationalists happen to be the bedrock of the regime in Kiev. Indeed, the rise of heady nationalism simultaneously in two neighboring countries is always a recipe for tensions.

Thus, Kiev recently enacted a new law that would grant World War II-era nationalists an honored status. Poland swiftly changed sides and joined the critics in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and Moscow to oppose the new legislation.

The point is, Poland and Ukraine have a difficult history. The Ukrainian nationalists who collaborated with Hitler’s army had killed tens (or hundreds) of thousands of ethnic Poles during World War II and Poland can never forget the massacres in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, which it considers as nothing short of genocide.

Of course, there is a serious contradiction today insofar as Poland is helping a regime in Kiev that came to power riding the wave of Ukrainian nationalism. True, Russia has been in the crosshairs of the Ukrainian nationalists in the most recent past. But it cannot be overlooked that the Ukrainian nationalists also regard that their country’s western borders out to be where the San river runs through Poland.

Poland’s borders also have a difficult history. The country has been so often partitioned in modern history. Meanwhile, the virus of nationalism is also infecting the Ukrainian community within Poland. (See a fascinating essay, here, on how Ukrainian nationalism will prove to be a double-edged sword for Poland in the geopolitical agenda to settle scores with Russia.)

Simply put, Duda’s victory represents the ascendancy of nationalistic forces who may be inclined to (re)load the contemporary Polish-Ukrainian relationship with the blood-stained pages of history. For the time being, the bilateral relationship will continue to be the same but both sides will also remain conscious of the strong undercurrents stemming from the unfinished business of history.

Moscow will be watching closely. Duda’s victory presents an unexpected window of opportunity for Russian diplomacy. Paradoxically, Russian nationalism and Polish nationalism today would have a common headache in the rise of Ukrainian nationalism.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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